Cats aim to improve on runner-up finish
Editor's note: Graham Hays kicked off the 2011 season with a look at his top 20 teams.
No. 1 Arizona
Last season: 52-14, lost in Women's College World Series championship series
Who returns: People who hit lots and lots of home runs, for one thing. The Wildcats hit 241 home runs over the course of the past two seasons, and 177 of them are still represented in the names coach Mike Candrea can write on his lineup card. The Wildcats have lots of good hitters, but Brittany Lastrapes and Stacie Chambers occupy a place of prominence all their own, both in Tucson and in the wider world. Lastrapes led the team with a .413 batting average in 2010, but Chambers led in both slugging percentage (.803) and on-base percentage (.519).
Other power comes from sophomore third baseman Brigette Del Ponte (21 home runs, 1.127 OPS) and junior designated player Lini Koria (17 home runs, 1.095 OPS). Senior Lauren Schutzler (.468 OBP, 13 stolen bases) and junior Karissa Buchanan (.458 OBP) join Lastrapes in the outfield and give the Wildcats the kind of table-setting presences at the top and bottom of the order, respectively, that Candrea craves.
Kenzie Fowler's freshman season was eventful -- encompassing everything from a penchant for putting people on with walks, arm woes that cropped up late in the season and a rash of illegal pitches in the World Series -- yet she was everything she was supposed to be as a much-hyped freshman.
Who departs: K'Lee Arredondo started 232 games during her time with the Wildcats, mostly at shortstop over the past three seasons, so seeing a lineup without her is going to take some getting used to. Sarah Akamine's long-relief performance to earn the win in the super-regional clincher against BYU summed up the best of her career. She took the ball whenever the Wildcats, often short on pitching depth, needed her and gave her offense a chance to win.
Who arrives: What do you expect in Tucson, other than a class with plenty of potential contributors? Shelby Babcock has the résumé of someone who could handle enough of the pitching chores to keep Fowler's workload lighter than last season. The only obvious starting position up for grabs is shortstop, and Chelsea Suitos is in the mix, although returnee Matte Haack got the opening-day start.
Preseason question: Why is Arizona not like other recent runners-up?
Watch out for that last step; it's a doozy. It has been 15 years since Arizona won the 1996 national championship one season after losing the title game against UCLA. It's the last time a team that finished second one season improved on that finish the next season.
For the most part, the second-place finishers over the past decade and a half at least returned to the World Series the next season, but even that wasn't guaranteed. Last season, Florida broke a stretch of back-to-back misses by teams coming off second-place finishes (Tennessee missed the World Series in 2008 and Texas A&M missed in 2009). It is growing ever more difficult to be a part of the Oklahoma City octet, and as anyone who sat and sweltered through the action in recent seasons can attest, it's getting more and more difficult to find any cheap wins once you get there, a state of affairs Arizona's coach recently summed up.
"You go back to the early '90s when it was Arizona and UCLA," Candrea was quoted as saying in a preview published on the Arizona site. "Now you have many teams across the nation competing for a national championship. We have to do our part to not only play a competitive nonconference schedule, but to play a competitive schedule in Pac-10 play. You play in a regional that you never know where it's going to be at, and then you play a super regional against a very good opponent just to get to the College World Series and then you have to play well there, so it's a much tougher road now."
All of which is why it's no surprise to see experience rewarded. Look at recent second-place finishers and you come across a lot of senior stars playing their final game. That was the case for Florida's Stacey Nelson in 2009, Texas A&M's Megan Gibson in 2008 and Tennessee's Monica Abbott in 2007. It has been an entire generation, in terms of college matriculation, since Northwestern and UCLA made it to the championship series with non-seniors as their signature players in the batting order, and more significantly, in the circle.
Rare is the team that can survive the marathon of a long season and the grueling sprint of the World Series as anything less than the maximum of the potential on its roster. But that's just what the Wildcats did in making it to the championship series last June with a freshman pitcher nearing 300 innings and a lineup loaded with underclassmen.
And if Arizona really is a better team this season, there's only one potential outcome.